Boss vs Leader: 25 Major Differences

Regardless of your organization’s size, your management team is a key factor in its success. The list below is intended to help small business owners and managers go beyond just being bosses to being leaders who can inspire and motivate employees. All small businesses can benefit by adopting strong leadership principles and knowing the difference between boss vs leader will help your firm stand out from competitors.

Here are the 25 main ways experts said that leaders differ from bosses:

Yuri Khlystov - boss vs leader

1. Leaders Handle Stress with Confidence

Yuri Khlystov, LaowaiCareer

As a leader myself, I know how important it is to be a good leader and how much of a difference it can make to a work force.

When looking for a leader, I always try to keep my eye on how a person reacts when put in a stressful situation. If they react with confidence and certainty, I know that they have the potential to be a leader. If, however, they make excuses or try to blame someone else, I know that they aren’t leadership material.

Pinpointing a person’s attitude when they’re at their lowest is probably the best indicator of how they will perform in the future. With business, there are always setbacks and problems. It’s not whether a leader causes them, but how they react when it comes time to fix them.

Matt Spaulding - boss vs leader

2. Leaders are Purpose Driven

Matt Spaulding, Spaulding Communications

Being a leader takes a lot more work than being a boss. But it is well worth it. Leaders are typically driven by a clear purpose or mission. Because of this, they need to inspire and empower their people; they need those that work for them to share in in their purpose with them. Doing this requires a lot of effort.

Leaders need to clearly articulate their vision and provide ways for their people to share in achieving that vision. A boss, on the other hand, simply wants the job done. “Here is your list of activities, now execute.” This is much easier than being a leader. When you inspire people to share in your vision, as a small business owner, you gain multiple advantage: employee satisfaction, strategic organizational alignment, etc. When you’re a boss, you may get the job done. But you’re not building for the future or creating a strong company culture with a clear mission or purpose.

Ashley Cox-boss vs leader

3. Leaders Know How to Truly Delegate

Ashley Cox, Sprout HR

A boss can be insecure and would have a hard time trusting others. They hire team members who know less than they do, so they can control them. A leader is secure in their abilities and knows their weaknesses. They hire team members who complement them and are more skilled in areas where they are weak. They know that they are able to do their best work when they trust others to do their best work.

For the same reason, a boss tends to never truly delegate. They assign tasks and micromanage their team members because they believe no one can do something as well as they can. A leader assigns tasks to team members based on their unique skills and strengths. They ask for feedback, set clear expectations and deadlines, and encourage their team members to come to them with questions or concerns. A leader trusts their team to handle the tasks assigned.

InvestmentZen - boss vs leader

4. Leaders Know When to Break the Rules

Han Chang, InvestmentZen

Sometimes you need to be a boss, and sometimes you need to be a leader. Sometimes, people make a great boss but a terrible leader (and vice versa).

A boss is someone your staff reports to. He or she typically has a clear set of guidelines of what’s required of employees and/or what constitutes their success. For this reason, a boss typically is not successful if they have to work outside of set parameters, usually set by a leader.

A leader helps his or her employees grow with the hopes that, at some point, they might even be more capable than they are someday. A leader understands when the rules need to be broken, but breaks them for the right reasons: growth, advancement, etc.

In a project situation, a boss might delegate who does what. A leader understands why people have been tasked with their individual roles and not only helps them accomplish them but also grow so that they may take on more challenging work in the future.

A leader is like an alpha wolf ensuring the overall success and wellbeing of the pack. It’s not uncommon to see the alpha in the back of the pack, making sure no wolf is left behind.

COS Sales - boss vs leader

5. Leaders Make Their Staff Want to Work for Them

Richard Kao, COS Sales

Any leader can be a boss, but not all bosses can be leaders. It’s the way you view your role within a company that sets the two part. Lots of bosses like to rule their office with fear. Their staff will perform well, but only because they’re too scared not to! However, you shouldn’t run your office the same way Cersei Lannister runs Westeros. Sure, fear does make people get the job done, but it certainly doesn’t make them want to work hard for you. Instead, you create a culture of people wanting to get away from you, which isn’t good for workforce turnover.

A leader will instead be surrounded by staff of whom they’ve earned respect from. They motivate their team to work hard via positive reinforcement and working with them, not above them. People want to work hard for leaders, and will be far more likely to push above and beyond for them too.

Don’t be a Cersei Lannister. Be a Jon Snow.

The Alternative Board - boss vs leader

6. Leaders Create New Leaders

David Scarola, The Alternative Board

While it may seem counter intuitive, a great leader doesn’t direct a group of followers. Instead, a great leader turns his or her followers into leaders of their own domain. A leader’s job is to establish a vision and communicate it to employees in an inspiring way.

While a leader’s most important function is to inspire action, a boss’s primary goal is to accomplish goals. The boss’s responsibility is to translate the leader’s vision into actionable and measurable steps employees can take to reach long term company goals.

Laura Handrick - boss vs leader

7. Leaders are Creative with Motivating Employees

Laura Handrick, HR, Fit Small Business

Leaders know how to motivate their employees with words and actions — without necessarily putting a dent in the company budget. They understand that employees may appreciate non-monetary tokens and simple recognition of a job well done. More often than not, bosses tend to associate employee performance with monetary value. As in, “I pay you to do a job, so do it!” This rigid view limits potential within the organization, and de-motivates staff, which eventually results in lost opportunities to the company’s bottom line.

For those having trouble moving from boss to leader, I recommend hiring a business coach.

Yvette La-Garde -boss vs leader

8. Leaders Invest Time in their Team

Yvette La-Garde, VitaMedica

Leaders invest time in their team. Unfortunately, it is common these days for a boss to choose favorites. Leaders, however, treat everyone equally, investing time and effort into molding their employees. This not only will help the team complete projects, but will also support the growth of individual careers.

A good leader knows when to be a typical “boss” and when to play a supporting role. This is important for any small business because leadership has a direct impact on overall revenue and company success. According to a Forbes study, extraordinary leaders have the potential to more than double a company’s profit!

Natalie Athanasiadis - boss vs leader

9. Leaders Nurture a Team’s Passion

Natalie Athanasiadis, Digital Visibility Group

One of the most important difference between a boss and a leader is that leaders amplify and nurture the enthusiasm of their team members. Passion outplays skills each and every time in my experience, and passion leads to better productivity which can in turn mean more profits. Bosses can have the most skilled team members and still not achieve as much as a leader can with enthusiastic and committed team members.

FitSmall Business - boss vs leader

10. Leaders Develop Progressive Discipline Policies that Employees Trust

When handling behavior and performance issues, leaders believe that the best process is one that employees can completely trust to be fair. Where a leader looks forward to mentoring and training, bosses often focus the results on penalties and sanctions. Bosses tend to view disciplinary policies as a disadvantage instead of an opportunity. A leader knows how to help employees improve their performance with clear expectations that employees understand and respect.

Aaron Norris - boss vs leader

11. Leaders Transact in “Psychic” Dollars

Aaron Norris, The Norris Group

Someone is typically called a boss because they control the purse strings. They transact in earned dollars and have captured your time and talent because you work for them. A leader, on the other hand, is someone that transacts mostly in psychic dollars. They may or may not control earned dollars, but at the end of the day, you’re willing and excited to follow their lead because they know how to rally and excite a team. You believe in the mission, see the vision, and this leader is able to inspire you and others to build something together.

Robin Salter-boss vs leader

12. Leaders Work to Earn Authority

Robin Salter, Kwipped

Bosses are handed assumed authority to tell those they manage what is expected of them, while leaders earn authority by inspiring others to do more than is expected of them. A boss is not necessarily a leader, and a leader is not necessarily a boss. However, leaders typically do eventually find their way to boss status, while bosses lacking leadership rarely become effective leaders. So here’s the tip: whether through action, or motivational words, or just offering up some positive feedback, determine some key ways to inspire others to be the best they can be. Once you accomplish this, you will be seen and treated as a leader.

Daniel Duty-boss vs leader

13. Leaders Build High Performing Teams

Daniel Duty, Conlego

Leaders create teams that the best and brightest want to be a part of by setting a compelling vision and letting their team members be creative and innovative in achieving that vision. Leaders let their team take calculated risks to experiment with new ideas, letting them fail with support on occasion in order to learn. Leaders spend an inordinate amount of time coaching their teams, helping them learn and grow. Leaders are empathetic to the team’s concerns and will defend them, yet challenge them to figure things out. Leaders give credit to their teams and take little to none for themselves. As a result, leaders have teams that outperform other teams and are immensely loyal.

Bosses, on the other hand, tend to be the opposite of the traits seen in leaders. They give orders and require that work be done in a predetermined way. They can micro-manage and have little concern for the team’s well being or the growth of individuals. It tends to be more about “them”. As such, teams reporting to bosses feel less empowered, and their creativity and output diminishes.

FitSmall Business - boss vs leader

14. Leaders Know the 4 Main Functions of a Manager

Leaders are effective because they know the 4 main functions of a manager:

  • Training Your Team
  • Organizing Your Team
  • Communication
  • Motivating Your Team

If you’re missing one of these four pieces, then you can’t be an effective leader. Once these four pieces come together, leaders can establish parameters that align these functions to company vision and goals, leading to employee self management. Bosses on the other hand, base their actions on pre-existing parameters and are usually results oriented rather than work driven.

Christine Mann-boss vs leader

15. Leaders Create Followership

Christine Mann, Mann Consulting, LLC

A boss manages day to day work and guides your activities, but, in my mind, a leader is significantly different. Leaders take their team with them, even to places they may have never considered going to on their own. They also create followership, have the ability to set a vision, are consistent and fair in their implementation of company rules, and are aware of their leadership strengths and weaknesses. Leaders lead the work as opposed to letting work lead them.

The key to good delegation is this: It is imperative that you assess the readiness of the person you are delegating to. Ask the right questions. Do they need help with the first few steps? Are they a self-starter and can just go? Are they new to the task?

Knowing this upfront is critical. Depending on the answer, you can provide supportive leadership, especially for those who are new to a task. Ask and clarify the goal, ask them if they understand, even ask what their first 5 or 6 steps may be towards meeting the goal. If they are on target, let them go but stay close if needed. If they are off, course correct upfront and avoid a deliverable that either never arrives or comes in not meeting expectations.

DevelopIntelligence-boss vs leader

16. Leaders Don’t Provide All the Answers

Jana Tulloch, DevelopIntelligence

A leader is supportive and encouraging, and is committed to your learning and development; they don’t provide answers all the time but rather want you to try to figure it out yourself, recognizing that we learn from our mistakes and gain confidence through our accomplishments. Bosses often point out your weaknesses and tell you what you did wrong, but often not how to correct it. While leaders will take the time to learn about you and what you can bring to the company, bosses are not often interested in your development as an individual but are more focused on that tasks that need to be done.

Leaders help you become a better employee and engage you in the tasks at hand; they will often include you in the decision-making process, and be transparent in their communication and why things need to be done. Bosses tend to be less inclusive, feel they don’t need to tell you why they make the decisions they do, and expect only for you to follow their direction. vs leader

17. Leaders Know How to Do the Job On Their Own

Eng. Rennella, Cristian,

In our company, when we hire managers, the most important thing is to verify if they’ve done the job of the people who’ll be reporting to them. The reason for this is because we are looking for leaders, not bosses. A leader is the one who knows how to do the task with his or her own hands and teaches you how to do it. It gives you the example to follow.

A boss, on the other hand, only tells you what the final goal is and remains waiting for results without being able to collaborate with you. As Larry Page, founder of Google, once said: “Technical people should not be led by someone who is not technical.”

If you want your startup to grow, surround yourself with leaders.

Adam Stoker-boss vs leader

18. Leaders Share the Responsibility of Decision Making

Adam Stoker, Relic Agency

A boss wants things done his/her way and doesn’t really care about the opinions or expertise of his/her team. A leader will involve the team in decision making, hear out their thoughts and opinions, and make decisions that allow the team as a whole to grow and improve. When we re-branded the company, my original instinct was to go another direction with the brand. As a team, we brainstormed ideas and finally landed on Relic together. I was thrilled that I hadn’t just made the decision and moved forward. We ended up with a much better brand and had a great growth experience together as a team.

Andrew Thompson-boss vs leader

19. Leaders Inspire Creative Thought

Andrew Thompson, PEAK Performance Professionals

A primary difference between a boss and a leader is inspiration. To be a boss means to manage and to hold your team accountable for their actions. Bosses that immerse themselves in this style of managementat best would receive moderate expectations from their team. This can create a mundane culture which can discourage independent thought, creativity and ambition – elements that create a powerful work environment and make your company more competitive in the marketplace.

To be a leader means to inspire creativity. Effective leaders don’t just track their employees’ productivity; they encourage independent thought, creativity and ambition. Most importantly, they serve. Some of the best companies have leaders whose primary function is to serve their team – help them with whatever they need to overcome their challenges and succeed at the team level. Eventually, this also becomes an inspiration for team members to serve others. If your team succeeds, then your company succeeds.

Body Gears-boss vs leader

20. Leaders Don’t Alienate Themselves From Their Team

April Oury, Body Gears

“You’re so mean.” I used to hear this all the time, and I was. I was expecting the right things but going at it completely wrong. Instead of supporting and encouraging my staff, I berated (publicly) and pointed out faults that needed correction in embarrassing ways. My thought was that I was going to help people remember what not to do by pointing it out as it happened. What ended up happening was alienating a lot of great staff with great ideas who were afraid to make mistakes at work.

As a leader, I now try to forge ahead with enthusiasm, support, and being the example of what I expect others to do. Not perfect, but leading. Instead of humiliating staff into better behavior, I’ve taken a lot of cues from trying to raise my daughters. If I wouldn’t speak to my kids” that way”, why would I want my staff to be subject to it?

Roger Longden-boss vs leader

21. Leaders Can Effectively Switch Between “Boss Mode” & “Leader Mode”

Roger Longden, There be Giants

The truth is, in a small business, you need to be both. However, knowing which hat to wear at the right time is the key to success. In boss mode, you’ll be focused on delivering the plan, tracking the numbers and making sure that all is on track as it should be. In leader mode, you’ll be looking at the bigger picture and selling it to your team so they share your vision and give you 100% commitment. You’ll have a natural preference to one or the other – if you like detail then you’re likely to be more boss than leader, so working on your leader skills and recognizing when to switch will make you more effective.

Executive Development Associates, Inc.-boss vs leader

22. Leaders Guide the Team to Accomplish Company Goals

Bonnie Hagemann, Executive Development Associates, Inc.

A boss is command and control. They give you a dollar and tell you how to spend it and then ask if you spent it that way. A leader establishes a vision, empowers employees to make decisions to achieve the vision, ensures that they have the information and the training needed to make good decisions, and then encourages them to be their best. The leader’s job is then to check for alignment with the organization’s vision and values, to make sure the employees are making good decisions and if not working to understand why. If the employee can’t get to the place where he/she can be successful after the leader has done his/her part then the leader’s job is to help that person move on to a place where they can be successful and get the right people in the right seats.

GMR Web Team-boss vs leader

23. Leaders Never Micromanage

Ajay Prasad, GMR Web Team

Another important quality that a leader must have is that they don’t micromanage. Micromanaging is one of the worst possible traits that a leader can have. Micromanaging bosses are annoying, pushy, and unpleasant. This also implies a distrust within the company, and that is something you never want. Trust in your team that you hired and know that they will do their job well. And if they do make mistakes (which everybody does), then they can learn from it and become better.

Art Barter-boss vs leader

24. Leaders are the Best Team Players

Art Barter, Servant Leadership Institute

In theory, a boss and a leader shouldn’t be different. A good boss is a good leader. Good leaders are proactive, not reactive, and they are constantly finding creative ways to boost team morale and performance. Leaders are people who have influence because of their humility and attitude, not because they have been promoted to a supervisory position. Essentially, good leaders aren’t “bosses” to their teams — they are more like supportive and admirable teammates.

TINYpulse-boss vs leader

25. Leaders Understand the Value of Employee Engagement

Tracy Nguyen, TINYpulse

Leaders recognize the importance of continuously engaging employees. Employee engagement, which is a key measure to assess the culture and well-being of a company, is the responsibility of leaders. In order to measure the engagement level of the employee, companies use a variety of tools including sentiment analysis, pulse surveys, engagement surveys, and opinion polls. These tools allow leaders to decide on the best actions needed to keep employee engagement at a healthy level, which generally means regular coaching, problem fixing when necessary, and keeping the channels of communication open.


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